The Benefit of High Standards at Amazon

How long would it take you to learn how to do a handstand? 

This is a story taken directly from a Jeff Bezos letter to investors in 2018 and it’s some of the best memo writing I’ve ever seen. 

At the time, Amazon had just been named the #1 place to work in America by LinkedIn and Jeff was willing to share the secret sauce to staying ahead of rising customer expectations… 

high standards. 

To jump ahead he states the primary benefit of adopting high standards is you’re going to build better products for your customers.

To summarize the letter, to date they had learned 4 essential elements of high standards. 

1. Teachability 

“I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.”

2. Domain-Specific 

“I believe high standards are domain-specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest”

3. Recognizable 

“What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain…

4. Have a Realistic Scope 

Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.”

This brings us back to his handstand example. 

Most people think they can learn a handstand in two-weeks. Not his friend, she hired a coach who explained it would take six months (realistic scope).

Similarly, many Amazon employees would try to write their six-page memos (required for meetings) in a few hours or even a couple of days. He emphasizes in the letter that after 20 years, the best memos he’s read weren’t from the best writers, they were from the TEAMS that recognized a realistic scope of what it would take to write a good memo, identified the people that had the required skills and executed. 

If you can instill this level of high standards in your team not only will you inevitably create better products for your customers, but recruiting and retention will be easier too.

Like he says high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back.

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